Another thought from my recent journey in the Ukraine. On my first night there, I took the subway (more crowded than Shanghai) to the center with Professor Piotr Krasny and wandered around St. Sophia cathedral. There I noticed that in portions of the walls of the church, the stucco or render was left off, revealing the stone and brick construction beneath. Krasny said it was something they did there. I saw it again on my last morning in Kyiv, at the Pechersk-Lavra monastery, on the recently rebuilt Church of the Dormition. It is like peeling back the layers of construction, or perhaps of time.
The revealed segments of Kyiv churches are a kind of interpretation that makes the past visible. These reveals tell us immediately that the building is not new, and they hint at its history. These subsurface reveals in Kyiv churches seemed to me like an inverse plaque that you put on the building to landmark it. Given that most of the signs are in Cyrillic, which I can’t read, I want to be able to understand these reveals in the same non-linguistic way one knows that the pebbles in the mortar at a Mayan or Hellenistic site signify anastylosis (that it where you put the crumbled bits of a ruin back together). Continue Reading
When was this building built? 1910? 2003?
More likely the latter, if your eyes are trained by looking at lots of buildings. But for many people. including a surprising number of urban planners, they either don’t know or don’t care.
Historic preservation was more difficult in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was easier to see. Modern was blocky with continuous surfaces and historic was fussy and detailed. Now it can be the opposite: 1950s houses are landmarks and brand new buildings have as many fussy details as a Charles Addams haunted Second Empire manse. Continue Reading
Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities whupped the ass of the architectural and planning establishment, has died. Jacobs wrote until the end of her life, just a week before her 90th birthday, but that first book was the barn-burner. “A city cannot be a work of art.” She said, and italicized it to make sure we got the point. The city is organic, said Jacobs. You can’t plan it.
Jacobs emerged as a community activist who took down (an already wounded) Robert Moses and launched the concept that neighbors had a right to say how their neighborhood looked and what should go in it. A fifty-year history of urban planning as an elite, expert enterprise ended on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village when Jacobs systematically disemboweled the “Radiant Garden City” of Howard, Burnham, LeCorbusier and Moses.
A housewife and mother who pulled apart the metalogic of urban planning. She wasn’t just against urban renewal – she understood it better than its proponents. My favorite part of Death and Life –which I assigned in my seminar this semester – is near the end when she exposes the pseudo-science of urban planning. Twenty years earlier Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture had trumpeted modern architecture and planning as an expression of the new Einsteinian understanding of space and time. Jacobs exposed this as a rank falsehood. Continue Reading
Last week the Traditional Building show was in Chicago, which is a trade show catering to the needs of preservationists. The floor was full of window and masonry restorers, stained glass outfits, museum villages, and manufacturers of everything from floors to real roofing tiles. They also had a row of us not-for-profits, including the National Trust and LPCI (link at right) and the dear old School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Historic Preservation Program.
Traditional Building is the name of a magazine founded by Clem Labine, an original Brooklyn Heights brownstoner, back in the early 1970s and he was there as well. The group that puts on the show also put on a series of speakers and presentations that were really quite excellent. I’m not saying that just because I was one of them, nor because we all got to see Bob Yapp do his fabulous, funny and fact-filled number on replacement windows. Everyone I knew commented on the interest and quality of the presentations. Continue Reading
Image: The permanent fog of a 1980s replacement window.
Friday there was an article about replacement windows in the Tribune. Like most consumer-oriented pieces, it warned about the pitfalls and pitches of various types of window replacement – wood is a better insulator but more expensive; plastics can’t match colors and look like crap; installation makes all the difference. The last point is a good one – a large fraction of people who replace their windows don’t get much energy savings because the key is the window frame and if it is not replaced, the air just runs right around those new $500 double-glazed tilt-pacs.
But the key consumer decision was left out of this article, as it usually is. How about repair? The sustainable answer, the answer that employs people but pollutes less. Continue Reading
Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois released its 10 Most list last Wednesday in Springfield. That is, Ten Most Endangered Buildings in the state. The ones in Chicago are particularly evocative because of what they share: deteriorating inner-city neighborhoods. In the west side’s North Lawndale neighborhood, the “most endangered” was not a building but a bunch of buildings stretching along Douglas Boulevard, massive former synagogues and schools. The threat is basically the weight of poverty and disinvestment multiplied by years.
North Lawndale was featured in a 1987 Chicago Tribune series as the most impoverished neighborhood in the city. My wife Felicity Rich photographed the buildings for the AIA Guide to Chicago in 1992 because most of the photographers didn’t want to go there. Continue Reading
Preservation is a fundamentally conservative notion, that places more faith in the past than the future, or so it seems. So many historic preservation battles pit a glorious past against a cheapened, money-grubbing future or celebrate the accomplishments of long-dead forbears, implicitly denying the ability of current persons to reach such heights.
This thought came to me last week reading Thomas Friedman’s history of the 21st century “The World Is Flat.” He said we need a positive view to succeed in the future. I wondered – does that make all preservation a demi-nihilistic “things were better before and can never get better than they were” sort of enterprise? Continue Reading
Pilgrim Baptist Church’s walls are salvageable (yay!)
The restoration of Carson Pirie Scott Building is almost complete (yay!)
A developers proposal to demolish 17th Church of Christ Scientist (boo!) was leaked by Phil Krone.
Last week I read about the decay and demolition of hundreds of modernist landmarks in Moscow (boo!).
17th Church of Christ Scientist was built in 1968 by noted Chicago architect and preservationist Harry Weese. It is a flying saucer of High Modern delights, a washer and nut bolting down the bend in the river where Wacker Drive turns sharply toward the Michigan Avenue bridge. The quarter-round plan was innovative (although if I were a persnickety architectural historian I would point out a precedent published in Liturgical Arts in 1942) and the result was a building that is interesting in and of itself and also urbanistic, making its surroundings more interesting. So far the congregation have resisted the developer’s advances, but you never know – every church has its price. Continue Reading
One of the impulses and gifts of Postmodernity in architecture was that it successfully questioned the universalizing, problem-solving and ultimately dictatorial proscriptiveness of Modernity. One only has to think of LeCorbusier’s Modulor or type-needs, the Existenzminimum of the Bauhaus or the ranting of planner Edmund Bacon in the recent film My Architect. Modernism, like its political cohort Progressivism, wanted to solve the world’s problems – a noble goal – but it wanted to do it from above, by the fiat of experts. Like the old Second City routine where the college kid shushes the urban resident with a condescending: “I’m an Urban Affairs major at Northwestern University. I think I know a little bit more about your problems than you do?!”
Postmodernism trashed those assumptions, which was just as well. The Modulor wouldn’t stop evolving and radio and television did the same to the Existenzminimum and every NIMBY quick citizen took a page from Jane Jacobs and told Ed Bacon where to stick his plans. You can’t be a problem solver when problems don’t stand still. PostModernism, like Punk, reveled in nihilism, safe in its conclusion that Progress was a big joke. Continue Reading